Every winter, the Leo J. Martin Golf Course transforms into the Weston Ski Track, a snow-covered wonderland for cross-country skiers. Snow guns provide layers of man-made white stuff, and bright lights illuminate the track at night. The same people have been running the ski operation at the state-owned golf course for 40 years.
But that is about to change.
When cross-country skiers return to Weston this season, the ski track will be under new management, because the state is taking it over.
It’s a big shift for one of the busiest cross-country (also known as Nordic) skiing venues in the region, one that draws thousands of recreational skiers and racers every year. The facility is used by Harvard University’s ski team and by more than a dozen high schools.
When the state Department of Conservation and Recreation announced its plans to take over the ski operations July 31, it came as a surprise to many users, including Larry Smith, the owner of Charles River Recreation, the firm that has operated the ski track for decades.
“No warning was given,” said Smith, who lives in Newton.
The Friends of Leo J. Martin Skiing, a nonprofit advocacy group, learned the news at the same time.
The Friends organization offered to enter a long-term lease with the state and manage the operations of the ski track (snowmaking, grooming, ticket sales, rentals, lessons) but that proposal didn’t gain any traction. The state is sticking with its plan.
Kevin O’Shea, a spokesman for the Department of Conservation and Recreation, said the agency is “excited” to provide Nordic skiing at the golf course, and aims to “work directly with, and meet the needs of, its patrons, stakeholders, and the community to deliver an exceptional recreational experience.”
In 2013, Charles River Recreation, doing business as Charles River Canoe & Kayak, lost its permit to operate at the state’s historic boathouse in Newton, when it was outbid by a Hopkinton business for the state contract. The company had offered paddling classes and rented equipment for four decades. It continues to operate at other locations.
This will be the first time the state will manage the skiing operations at the Weston golf course, and some veteran skiers are concerned about the agency’s ability to do so. As the upcoming season draws closer, they worry that DCR lacks the experience and know-how to make snow and groom trails (The cross-country skiing season at the golf course typically begins the first weekend in December and runs through mid-March).
Chris Doyle, chairwoman of the Friends of Leo J Martin Skiing board of directors, said the transition is “on such an accelerated time frame, there’s not much time for planning and learning.”
The state put out a request for proposals to supply rental equipment and ski lessons at the Weston ski track, according to Smith, who said he submitted a bid and was awaiting a decision.
Fred Sears coaches the Dover-Sherborn High School’s cross-country ski team, and has used the Weston ski track since 1986. He said the previous operator learned how to make snow through trial and error, and it wasn’t easy.
“There are small windows of opportunity to make snow,” he said. “It’s like the farmer and his crop.”
“They handled it very well,” he said.
Sears said he’s “nervous” about the change in management.
Another longtime fan of the Weston Ski Track is Sara Mae Berman, a pioneering athlete who earned a spot on the first US women’s national cross-country ski team in 1968. Berman has been cross-country skiing at the golf course since the mid-1970s.
“I’m sure DCR has good intentions,” said Berman, 79, “but those of us who’ve skied there for 40 years, since it started, are really worried.”
“We’re afraid that without the proper experience, they won’t be able to make the quality snow,” said Berman.
She’s also puzzled by the state’s decision. “For a Republican administration which generally looks to privatize, this is doing” the opposite, she said. “This is taking a hard-working, successful private firm and handing it over to a public agency. It seems counterintuitive.”
Berman said Smith and his company spent 40 years developing the course into a top Nordic skiing facility, and figuring out the best practices and strategies to make snow and maintain the track.
“This cannot be learned over one winter,” she said. “You can’t have beginners do this.”
“It wasn’t the way I’d hoped things worked out,” said Smith, adding, “maybe it’s for the best, who knows.”
“My hope is the skiing won’t suffer,” he said. “Maybe it won’t.”